Reclaiming our Power
Comic Hari Kondabolu’s “The Problem with Apu” addresses a deeper problem with overall media representation of underrepresented communities.
by K.J. Bagchi
Stereotypes have a long-lasting and profound effect upon our lives. They do more than just simplify a complicated identity — they rob us of our chance to present our own dynamic and bold personal stories. Stereotypes can also be dangerous, especially when they dehumanize an entire ethnic group and reduce the group to one-dimensional characteristics. Look no further back for proof than the past few weeks when racist flyers were sent to voters in New Jersey that targeted and denigrated Asian American political candidates.
Television and film can and should play an important role in exposing us to characters of diverse backgrounds. While TV and film bring in a lot of income to Hollywood studios and showrunners, the work can and should play a significant role in breaking down stereotypes while entertaining us.
But what happens when the representation of a community is confined to a goofy character stuck in time — a character who has become a punchline to remind us that there are some who will always be considered outsiders, never fully integrating into our country? How does it perpetuate the negative stereotypes when the character is portrayed with a purposefully bad accent?
Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” tackles these issues with a focus on the impact that one cartoon character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from “The Simpsons,” can have on a generation of South Asians growing up in this country.
In one striking moment in the documentary, Dana Gould, a writer for “The Simpsons,” asks Kondabolu whether he thinks Charles Montgomery Burns, a recurring character on the same animated series shown to be the rich, greedy and cruel, is also one-dimensional.
Without skipping a beat, Kondabolu replies, “I think Mr.Burns is one-dimensional, but he is a one-dimensional caricature of a rich maniac, which there are many and who have power.”
Gould simply nods quietly, acknowledging Kondabolu’s response.
Kondabolu continues, “I think that an Indian convenience store owner who is accented doesn’t have power, especially in that situation…”
And this is Kondabolu’s not-so-subtle argument raised throughout the documentary: That to mock those without power is an egregious misuse of media. Throughout the film, he references how after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he moved his own standup routine away from directly mocking the accent of his parents and culture, actively choosing to stop the perpetuation of minimizing the experience and existence of this community.
Some may say that having a long-running South Asian character on a popular animated television show is proof that we have made significant strides in the media. But the idea is to make sure our background and histories get widespread media attention without characters that mock or demean our history and culture. Yet, the quality of that representation in the media is rarely spoken about the way Kondabolu’s film portrays it. To show Asian Americans as leading men and women, showcase our rich history, or revel in our cultural contributions is the way we empower our current and future generations to accept nothing less than nuanced and complex portrayals.
Having an Indian character on a long-running television show is not enough. Apu’s faux accent and his use as a comedic prop in an animated series diminishes the power of a community. But having serious conversations about what’s wrong with characters like Apu in modern media is the first step to regaining our power of the portrayals.
Koustubh “K.J.” Bagchi is Senior Staff Attorney for Telecommunications, Technology, and Media at Advancing Justice | AAJC.